Sunday, November 21, 2004

Students as customers, students as workers

In this MetaFilter thread, there’s a great deal of discussion over the idea that university culture today is one of entertainment over learning. This is, of course, a generalisation and should be criticised as such: scientific, mathematical and engineering degrees are, I’m certain, full of immensely hard work, and while I’m sure they are made compulsively interesting by a few star lecturers, they are likely to be edifying or intellectual rather than actively enjoyable.

“Colleges don’t have admissions offices anymore, they have marketing departments,” a school financial officer said to me once. Is it surprising that someone who has been approached with photos and tapes, bells and whistles, might come to college thinking that the Shakespeare and Freud courses were also going to be agreeable treats? One result of the university’s widening elective leeway is to give students more power over teachers. Those who don’t like you can simply avoid you. If the students dislike you en masse, you can be left with an empty classroom. I’ve seen other professors, especially older ones, often those with the most to teach, suffer real grief at not having enough students sign up for their courses: Their grading was too tough; they demanded too much; their beliefs were too far out of line with the existing dispensation. It takes only a few such incidents to draw other professors into line.
Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

So is this dumbing down? In some universities, undoubtedly. Certainly, my degree was both intellectual and enjoyable. You could get an ‘average’, ‘respectable’ grade if you were intelligent, paid attention and took care over your essays. And if I had coasted along on that, I would have got a 2:2 — not that that would have mattered vocationally, because my degree was in English.

But in school, and later, in university, I had got into the habit of getting top marks by a combination of going out of my way for them. Not that I mean that coasting felt natural for me — it didn’t. I’m not boasting here, but I was damn good at my literary criticism and research. And I enjoyed tramping through that extra mile of text.

But did I enjoy it in the sunglasses, lounger, drinks–by–the–pool sense? Of course not. It was hard work, but was always intellectually satisfying and I felt that satisfaction even as the headaches, swearing, panic and late nights came and went. And I didn’t like it when I sensed even the vaguest hint of “Hey! This text is cool!” in a lecturer. I wanted to be taught, by force if necessary, that which would be challenging — and yes, even difficult — for me to learn.

That’s just really to make the point that there are students out there who do not demand entertainment of their degrees. Now let’s take a look at some liberal arts colleges in America which combine true intellectual enjoyment and rigour with a distinctly non–standard teaching arrangement which avoids cool or uncool by transcending them altogether.

Deep Springs College educates its annual enrolment of around 30 male students by means of rigorous intellectual academics and manual labour:

Students often rise before the sun. At 6:00 the dairy boys are already milking cows half asleep when the feedman gets up to do his first feed run. A farm teamer may have been in the tractor baling hay since 4:30. All of these people are especially thankful for the breakfast cook, who’s up early preparing the morning’s fixin’s.

But they’re not the only ones up. Some people pull all–nighters to get their work done. Others sleep first and wake up excruciatingly early to do classwork. At every hour of the day there are at least a couple people up, discussing Heidegger, playing chess, or strumming guitars.

If the cows break out of a grazing area, we need to gather them and fix the fence as soon as possible or they could bloat from eating fresh alfalfa and die. Labor emergencies can happen at any time of the day.

On Tuesday nights the community gathers for Public Speaking. Public Speaking consists of several short (10 min.) speeches, or sometimes lengthy presentations by only one or two students. Other special activities happen at night, too. A poetry reading group meets, committees convene, a bible study group gathers, and other cool things go on. But for the most part, students are hard at work with the next few hundred pages of Proust or Derrida.

St. John’s College has a single curriculum for all students, which is studied by directly reading the work of the most influential thinkers from Ancient Greece to the 20th century. There are four years of seminar, language, advanced mathematics, three years of laboratory science, and one year of music.

Students teach themselves by closely supervised discussion and enquiry; there is one compulsory lecture, for all students, at 10pm on a Friday night. Sometimes the lecture may be a concert. Last night’s lecture was “Old Comedy, New Comedy, and the Problem with Tragedy” and last week’s was “The Use of Infinity in Mathematics”

The following teachers will return to St. John’s next year:
  • Beethoven
  • Euclid
  • Plato
  • Tocqueville
  • Newton
  • Racine
  • Goethe
  • Galileo
  • Hume
  • Liebniz
  • Locke
  • Well, you get the idea. Plenty of different ways to get yourself a non–vocational degree and be pushed very, very hard indeed. If you’re interested in more ‘quirky’ colleges, then look here.

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